Seven Steps to Super Sharp Shots

We photographers seek sharpness. Sharp pictures are the Holy Grail of our craft.

© Jim Austin

Since we often wonder how to get sharper shots, here are 7 steps to achieve sharper images and 2 ideas for sharpening them for output.

1. SHORTER SHUTTER DURATION, FASTER SHUTTER SPEED: Use a shutter speed of 1/1000th or faster. Your shutter setting is either in the mode dial atop your camera, or in your menu. 1 is one second. 1000 means 1/1000th of  a second. Use 1/1000th, or 1/2000th or even faster to maximize your sharpness.

2. MIRROR LOCK UP: Use Mirror Lock Up, abbreviated MUP or MLU. Your DSLR mirror will flip up immediately before the shutter opens. This mirror flip will usually cause your camera to vibrate. When you use mirror lockup, the program pauses between the time the mirror goes up and when the shutter opens. This camera feature gives some time for the vibration to settle down before the shutter opens.

All camera manuals will mention mirror lock up if your camera has this ability. [ Note: If you specifically use a rock-solid tripod with a ball head, mirror lockup makes no difference. In contrast, when hand holding, visibly sharper images are obtained when mirror lock up is enabled. This applies mainly to images taken with shutter speeds between 1/80th of a second and 3 seconds ].

3. IMAGE STABILIZE WITH OS, IS, VR: Optical stabilization, Image Stabilization and Vibration Reduction all help you get sharper captures. These features are either built-in to the camera or the lens itself.

4.  APERTURE: Don’t shoot with a wide open aperture. Many older lenses are optically better at their middle “sweet spot” apertures (f/3.2, f/3.5 f/4, f/5.6, f/ 7.1). If your lens has a maximum aperture of f/1.8, dial down your aperture two to three stops from wide open, to f/3.2 or smaller to improve sharpness. If you use P, or program mode, check your shot data (EXIF) after you take a photo to determine which aperture the camera chose.

Let’s say you mount a 70-300 mm zoom lens. It may have a maximum aperture of f/4.5, but you can get sharper pictures when you use f/8. To do this, try the A, or Av aperture mode on your mode dial. Try to avoid f/16 and f/22 because diffraction can cause a loss of sharpness; the edges of the diaphragm blades tend to slightly disperse the light at a higher percentage than for larger apertures.

5. FILL FLASH: Add a bit of flash. Most cameras have a fill-in flash setting. This is sometimes called forced flash as well as fill flash. Pop up your flash. Look in your menu to re-set your flash to go off manually. This extra touch of light, especially in daylight, can make for sharper images. Just remember to dial down the power of the on-camera flash to about 1/2 or 1/4 power, or -1 or -2 exposure compensation, in your flash menu.

6. MAKE YOUR BODY A TRIPOD: My personal favorite tip is to make your body into a tripod. Sit down. Let your elbows rest on your knees or sides. Cradle the lens. Take a breath, then let it out halfway. Then slowly roll your finger off the shutter release or depress it gently and smoothly without hammering it. Sharpness results.

7. THE EYE HAS IT: For portraits, we want to ensure that the eye closest to the camera lens is sharply focused. To do so, manually focus on the subjects eye nearest the lens. If you prefer auto-focus, it helps to choose a single focus point instead of many. In your camera menu, find auto-focus. Select a single AF point.


For Canon 5D Mark III owners, for instance, you must dial away from your Automatic (green colored) program mode, then use the multi-function button next to the shutter button to choose single point AF. Then, use the joystick to move the AF point so you can place the AF pointer right on the subject’s eye within your frame.


Before learning how to sharpen my photos for output, I felt I was trying to cut an apple with a spaghetti noodle. Mastering software sharpening tools (NIK, PhotoKit Sharpener 2.0) is like slicing with your favorite, honed sharp knife when you prepare your cuisine.


To understand output sharpening, we need to know what we mean by sharpness. Sharpness is both acutance and resolution. Here, let’s cover acutance. It is a subjective perception of sharpness. We boost acutance by increasing the edge contrast. Increasing acutance does not increase resolution.


Consider two filters to help you get sharper pictures.

1. UNSHARP MASK: In Photoshop, if you use the “horribly-named” Unsharp Mask filter, you are increasing the acutance. When an edge changes from one brightness level to another, the edge sharpness increases.  To quickly sharpen for output – for print or for the web- we can use filters and plug-ins to our editing software. Useful filters include Photoshop’s Unsharp Mask  filter or a plug-in to boost the sharpness of the edges between pixels.

2. NIK PLUG-IN FOR LR and PS:  Available to Win and Mac users for free. Google  bought NIK and its tools are now free to download. NIK Sharpener Pro 3.2 is an excellent plug in for sharpening. Its local contrast sharpening setting has a slider. Moving this slider will increase the edges of small objects throughout the image. This is the same as boosting acutance.

Explore these  easy steps and enjoy sharper results with all your fine images.

© Jim Austin

All written content (and most images) in these articles are copyrighted by the authors. Copyrighted material from Apogee Photo Mag should not be used elsewhere without seeking the authors permission.

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